In the midst of the debt crisis, all eyes are on Angela Merkel. Yet, off the big stage, a small revolution took place in the German party-political landscape. The populist “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), a party that was formed out of frustration with the financial crisis, took a major shift to the right. An internal power struggle between the nationalists and the liberal-conservative wing has been decided.
The party first became popular in 2013 when the German Parliament debated the rescue measures for the Greek economy. The AfD leader at that time, Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics, argued against any type of rescue measures and for the dissolution of the common European currency. Furthermore, Lucke demanded the transfer of competencies from Brussels back to the individual nation states, and favoured a referendum on the Euro-rescue packages.
For many people, this sounded like a welcoming alternative to the politics of the Merkel-government. Only two years after its founding, the AfD had a major success by receiving 4,7% of votes in the 2014 national elections and hence, just missed the 5% entry hurdle. Today, the Eurosceptic party is represented in five federal state parliaments.
Lucke developed a very successful and likewise dangerous strategy: he spoke to disappointed middle-class voters without sounding too politically radical. At the same time, he flirted with hardcore nationalists and conservatives, who had not found a home in the established party system. This was a risky game from the beginning. Oftentimes, Lucke found himself relativising or rejecting xenophobic or nationalist comments made by his party members. In turn, they became frustrated with his “despot-style leadership”. Finally it was Frauke Petry who openly challenged Lucke’s power. Petry is the head of the party in Sachsen, a federal state in which the AfD won 9,7% in recent elections. It was also Petry who encouraged the party to seek common ground with the Pegida-protests, a movement demanding stricter migration laws and the protection of national values and traditions.
In the beginning of July, the AfD held a party convention to debate the leadership question. After the first election round, Petry won with a clear majority and became the new party leader. Lucke, who has been the face of the party since its foundation, not only left his position but the party as well. The party became too right-wing and xenophobic, he argued.
What will happen to the AfD now? There are two possible scenarios: They will either continue to win over voters despite their openly racist and nationalistic views and establish a stronghold in the right corner, like the Front National. Or they will face a future of irrelevance. They already have a new competitor for the next elections: Lucke has established a new party.